When listeners refer to singers as "elemental," nature's flashier forces, like lightning or fire, often spring to mind. But the jazz vocalist Kate McGarry taps into the humbler elements of earth and wind, with a voice like a slow breeze swirling up dust on a vast plain. Eschewing the immaculate pitch and intonation often associated with "jazz singers," McGarry grounds her vocals in a sort of global folk context. She focuses on honest expression and the complex feelings each note can evoke, not the technical skills that the notes demand.
McGarry—who lives in Durham with her husband and frequent collaborator, the guitarist Keith Ganz—doesn't lack jazz bona fides. She was nominated for a "Best Jazz Vocal CD" Grammy for 2008's If Less is More, Nothing is Everything. She studied at Amherst under musical giants Horace Boyer and Archie Shepp. But those jazz chops come tempered by her devotion to Celtic and Brazilian music. Within this far-flung range of studies and influences, McGarry can easily accommodate both pop and experimental idioms.
That range is a central feature of the new Genevieve & Ferdinand, a stripped-down live set that McGarry recorded at Sound Pure Studios in Durham with acoustic backing by Ganz. Indeed, it might not even occur to you that you're listening to a jazz album until you get past a lovely, straightforward cover of Paul Simon's "American Tune" and the poetic McGarry original "Ten Little Indians," a musical tribute to her parents, who raised her alongside nine other children. Finally, you'll encounter the lively Portuguese-language scatting of the third track, a medley of music by jazz guitarists Toninho Horta and Pat Metheny. This fine, unpretentious album can accommodate a tune as traditional as James Taylor's "Line 'Em Up"—albeit embroidered with spiky jazz chords—and as far-out as experimental vocalist Theo Bleckmann's arrangement of Todd Rundgren's "Pretending to Care." During that album highlight, Bleckmann lends the alien beauty of his voice to the mix, alongside Australian vocalist Gian Slater.
Still, it's the emotional rapport between McGarry and Ganz, honed by a decade-long marriage, that serves as fuel for a quiet flame here. The relationship is most apparent on a smoldering cover of Kern and Hammerstein's "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," a signature song from the stage musical Show Boat. McGarry breathes fresh life into the familiar words of helpless endearment over Ganz's spry yet precise acoustic blues. As always, her deceptively homespun style makes the covers feel acutely personal, as though the borrowed words were written for her alone.
The down-to-earth quality of McGarry's singing is flatteringly accentuated by Ganz's subtle, dusky fingerpicking, which can be heard on recordings by vocalists as diverse as Harry Connick Jr. and Kurt Elling. He gets his moment in the spotlight with the guitar composition "Mr. Long Gones," a skein of arpeggios that McGarry colors with wordless harmonies. The piece was inspired by the singer and songwriter Paul Curreri, whose heartfelt "Beneath a Crozet Trestle Bridge" closes the record. Curreri's own wife, Devon Sproule, contributes a composition in the lyrically ambitious "Plea for a Good Night's Rest." These layers of matrimonial collaboration suggest sitting in on personal conversations, being privy to private devotions.
Live, McGarry and Ganz often bill themselves as Genevieve and Ferdinand, a handle that carries a whiff of doomed lovers from literature and myth—Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult. But the easy intimacy and fruitfulness of this couple's bond promises a much happier future than those pairs, as McGarry and Ganz operate comfortably in their element.Label: Sunnyside Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Intimate takes."